Here is my response to an English friend’s email asking me what the heck was going on over here. Sometimes I still don’t quite understand it.
All the hubbub out here is for the primary elections. We haven’t even gotten to the actual Presidential race where our voting would count toward specifically selecting the President.
The process in Britain’s Parliament, indeed much of Britain’s political processes can draw parallels with the US Congress. If I’m remembering correctly, when Parliament picks the Prime Minister (and the opposition leader), it’s an internal party debate among Members of Parliament and out of that mass emerges their respective leaders. In Congress, the same process goes on for picking the Speaker of the House and the Minority Leader (For the House of Representatives half), and the same for picking Majority and Minority leaders in the Senate.
In the US system, the Presidency and Congress (and the Judiciary) are all completely divorced from one another, and indeed are meant to oppose and impede each other. All that means is they are all selected separately, which can mean that, as it is right now (as of Congressional elections in 2006) the President is a Republican, and Congress is held by the Democrats.
You are completely right that the primary elections you are seeing right now are essentially internal party elections. It used to be a totally closed, internal decisions, and out of that the people would vote in November between the Democrat and Republican nominees. Now we have not only open internal elections, but even people not enrolled in a designated party (in some states) may vote for their candidate of choice by, at least for that vote, becoming a member of one or another party. A person cannot vote in both party’s primaries.
I think the most confusing bit is that this year, so many of the contenders for President are coming out of Congress. Not all of them, mind you, but I am sure you hear most about Senators Clinton, Obama, McCain, Edwards. Governers Romney and Huckabee are in it as well. Even Guliani was a major, never a Governor or Congressman. (Governor, by the way, basically means President of a single State, where states have their own separate governments entirely. Congress is part of the national government. And major, well, means just a single city, and essentially means ‘unqualified’)
But say one of the Senators is elected. They do not retain their position in the Senate and take on the duties of President. When a person is elected President, they leave their current post to serve a four-year term as President, and their previous position is filled by the next in line until elections for that position are held. This is quite different from the Prime Minister still being an MP who has been selected to take on the duties of being heady of the Party and of the Government.
It’s all tricky to explain, especially between the US and the UK. Americans have to envision a government comprised only of the House of Representatives (half of Congress) in order to begin grasping how the UK works. Britons have to, with even greater difficulty I would say, imagine their Prime Minister and his or her appointed Government being elected separately, being totally independent of, and often standing in opposition to the remainder of the House of Commons.
All that being said, it should be noted that I am not a fan of political parties. I do not care for the idea that the three hundred million people who populate our country fit into only two (or increasingly three with independents gaining sway) camps. I have long viewed our system as being great for having no parties at all. Each seat in Congress should be elected based on individual merit for that post. After all, they are representing the people of their district or state, not the party. However, this discussion is for another time.